Reading Ibram X. Kendi’s blog “Why the Academic Achievement Gap is a Racist Idea” from the African-American Intellectual History Society left me conflicted. On one hand, I appreciate that Kendi historicizes standardized tests. Those of us who see value in standardized tests should not forget their eugenicist roots, nor should we forget that some people believed and continue to believe that genetic variance is the reason for racial academic achievement gaps.
However, on the other hand, Kendi’s asserts, “Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.” That was where he lost me. I’m Mexican-American, I’m a first generation college graduate, and I qualified for free lunch. I have dedicated my career to ensuring that people stop seeing my academic achievement as an exception to the rule.
I work at the intersection of idealism and practicality. Standardized tests —with their many flaws— are part of the practicality, not the idealism. Though my acceptance of standardized tests is begrudging, here’s why I won’t throw them out:
The “Different Intellect” Argument Does Not Get Us Closer to Social Change
Kendi asks “What if the intellect of a poor, low testing Black child in a poor Black school is different—and not inferior—to the intellect of a rich, high-testing White child in a rich White school?”
I answer: Standardized tests help illuminate the ways that our schools are not educating all students. What standardized testing does not tell us is that Latinx, Black, and Native students are inferior, but rather that institutionalized racism has continued to prevail in denying us access to the skills and ideas that can help give us the power to improve our society.
Here, again, is my practicality: in our society, you must be able to read to create laws, you have to have a deep understanding of biology to be a doctor, and you have to know how to write to engage in modern intellectual debates about how to improve our world. When we talk about students of color being intelligent in “different” ways, we slip closer to a system that excuses inequity. Or, that blames inherent differences between races and classes for the lack of opportunity available to low income students and students of color.
“Equally intelligent in different ways” says to me: value survival skills in poor and brown people but leave the thinking about big ideas, governing, or improving the world to wealthy people and white people. I cannot equate environmental awareness with literacy for students of color at the expense of our ability to read works that connect us to a history of people struggling through the very same questions we face as we navigate an unequal society.
I agree that the ways we teach should value multiple intelligences and backgrounds. Many teachers are brilliantly leading the charge to update curriculum, understand students, and draw from the funds of knowledge available in a community so that students have access to an education that prepares them for college and career. As a 6th grade social studies teacher, I built a curriculum based on teaching students to think, read, talk, and write about history as it relates to identity and social justice. The abstract thinking required to understand justice was often easier for the students who had experienced injustices. What “non-elite” students lack is not the ability to think in abstractions, but rather the opportunity to engage with ideas that are meaningful to them.
Lack of Accountability Supports the Status Quo
Standardized tests are imperfect measures in an imperfect system, but surrendering accountability for basic skills like reading, writing, math, science is not a reality in which I want to live. It justifies a continued racist narrative that students of color are just different; or can’t do the same things; or have “street smarts” not “book smarts;” or being educated means a person of color is “acting white.”
I find these articles written far away from classroom experience or the implementation of education legislation difficult to wrap my head around. The author, a black man, succeeded in college and has successfully navigated institutions that have placed him in a position to engage in this critical conversation about how we educate our kids. So have I. But, I cannot in good conscience deny future generations of kids the opportunity to engage in this conversation. People should have a choice about how they participate in our society and they don’t get that choice if they are turned away at the door because they can’t read.
If our school system is not accountable for educating all students, we will continue to reproduce a system where the decision-makers in our society do not represent our population. Decisions will continue to be made for low-income communities and communities of color rather than with us.
Of course it’s not that simple, but I am not really interested in a conversation about educating black and brown bodies in which black and brown minds can’t equitably participate. You give the power to white teachers, white administrators, white legislators to say “you can’t hold me accountable for the fact that he can’t read, his intelligence is different” or “It’s not my fault she isn’t grasping algebra, her culture doesn’t value numbers or abstract thinking.”
Let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion that communities of color have fundamentally different kinds of knowledge. It’s not only racist, but also ahistorical. Pre-Columbian societies tracked the movements of stars and planets, understood complex mathematics, used chemistry and biology to create rubber, and engineered roads and buildings. Do not tell me that my culture doesn’t value abstract thinking.
Ultimately, I disagree that standards for learning are a bad thing. Rigorous standards are worthy learning goals. It’s important that a student, regardless of their racial or socioeconomic background can “articulate a position through a sophisticated claim or thesis statement and advance it using evidence, examples, and counterarguments” (a Colorado 12th grade standard).
White society does not get to claim ownership over abstract thinking. That is the heritage of humanity. Just because our minds have been colonized and oppressed to the point that many of us have focused on surviving the racist society in which we live rather than theorizing, does not mean that we lack the capacity to do so. My idealism holds that in order to create a more equitable multicultural society we have to have a more diverse set of voices involved in all levels of decision-making in our country.
Theories of Change
I’m all for a conversation about improving the tools we use to inform our conversation about educational inequity. Testing is a tool used within my theory of change. Put simply: if we want low-income people and people of color involved in creating a better world, the ability to access the long history of human intellect is necessary.
Maybe the solution isn’t to get rid of assessments because of their racist history. Instead, we have to do a better job of valuing and explicitly evaluating the extent to which assessments can drive and measure multiculturalism, multiple literacies, etc. Current assessments are reviewed for cultural sensitivity but that’s not enough. Standardized tests, when well-written and properly implemented, help us hold our education system accountable to providing an education to students who have historically been denied that opportunity.
What does it mean when we tell our overwhelmingly white educators to “standardiz[e] our schools to encourage intellectual openness and difference?” I like the idea and want to hear more, but I don’t see how that is necessarily opposed to standardized tests. The best teachers I know hold themselves accountable to their students being able to perform academic tasks while also affirming difference. When we give kids the tools to engage in our society as it exists, we give them power.